Windswept landscape near Sani Pass pub.
Windswept landscape near Sani Pass pub.
One of the pristine mountain streams en route. Pictures: Sal Roux
One of the pristine mountain streams en route. Pictures: Sal Roux

Durban - For 15 years the family has been talking about going up Sani Pass, but for just as long I have conjured up myriad reasons why we shouldn’t.

All very valid and all based on nothing more than my absolute dislike of heights fuelled by some rather graphic written accounts that used the words “terrifying switchbacks, heart stopping slides, bowel churning moments”.

Not to mention a wee glance at the actual map of the pass and spots marked “Haemorrhoid Hill 2 250m, Suicide Bend 2 462m, Ice Corner 2 775, Reverse Corner 2 880 and Big Wind Corner.”

But with extraordinarily perfect weather forecast and another plea from a family member, coupled with a forthcoming birthday, I grudgingly agreed. Soon our overnight accommodation was booked, our dinner reservations made, our cases packed and, come sunrise, we piled into the 4x4 and drove from the South Coast, past Umzinto and through Ixopo and on to Underberg.

It was our intention to summit the pass in time for a pub lunch, and a stiff drink for me, and then descend in the afternoon. Underberg and Himeville are a few kilometres apart and the animosity that once existed between the towns is a thing of the past. A row of oaks, planted along the road by the garden club, symbolises their unity.

I almost wished that our turnaround had been a little longer as the area has three golf courses, polo fields, riding, hiking and rivers where the adventurous can tube, do white water rafting, canoe or swim, There is 160km of river water and 60 dams for the adventurer and fisherman.

We meandered out of town, drove past the Sani Pass Hotel and suddenly above us rose the mighty Southern Drakensberg. A sign proclaimed that only 4x4s would be permitted and we began to climb slowly.

Suddenly a low-slung S Type Jaguar nosed its way gingerly towards us. Brave souls indeed but we discovered they had been turned back at the South African border post.

We had our passports stamped, confirmed we had a 4x4 and noted that ascending vehicles had right of way. I also saw a foot trail and enthusiastically offered to embark on a little hike while they tackled what looked like the sheer face of the mountain on nothing more than a dirt track once used by mules and ponies. My request was dismissed and we began the journey upwards.

The views were extraordinary. Vast, glorious, spectacular.

Little wonder that this is a “must” for thousands of visitors and locals.

We crawled past crystal streams with the purest of water and sweeping valleys which pleated into the distance. We drove past dramatic rock formations and ice, negotiated bloodchilling hairpin bends and sheer drops till finally we reached the summit, 2 873m high.

We were told that nearby stands Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak in southern Africa, but we were more interested in finding the highest pub in Africa for a Maluti lager, a warm fire and a welcome pub lunch, which incidentally was served with a generous slice of delicious Sotho bread.

The pub was full and very jovial (relief perhaps) and some of the visitors were spending the night up there. We remarked on the extraordinary selection of wines, reason enough to linger a little longer. What a pity we had to still get back down the mountain and my husband couldn’t enjoy at least a glass.

We had omitted to stop at the Lesotho border post, which we didn’t even see, but the government official found us ordering our lunch and allowed us to get stamped in and out on our way back.

Before you leave, step out on to the viewing deck and let the magnificence sink in, and lean into the wind as the world spreads out below you and you breathe the purest of mountain air as a lone guitarist, wrapped in a Basotho blanket, strums a guitar made from an oil tin. Even the birds swooped below us.

We descended without incident and even had time to buy some fresh fish at Giant’s Cup trout and have a fine Guatemalan coffee at The Lemon Tree Bistro in Underberg before pulling in at KarMichael, our Himeville B&B.

It is set on a working farm and we had been given Gregg’s Cottage, a delightful self-contained unit with three bedrooms, a blazing fire and very comfortable cozy beds. We dined at nearby Moorcroft Manor, where the cuisine was stunning and the service excellent. Come breakfast KarMichael laid on a spread that lived up to the farmhouse moniker.

On our way home we popped into Pucketty Farm Stall which has an art gallery, tea garden, guinea pig feeding, and fresh, homemade and pickled produce. To our utmost delight this is an honesty shop with a hoard of edible treasures around every corner. The free range eggs were piled on a bed of hay and the steaming freshly baked bread was delivered while we were there.

At an honesty shop, you tally your goods, pay what you owe and help yourself to change. A local lady told us that in all the years, only once has someone stolen the money.

In good humour and with the wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread wafting through the car we left the imposing Sani Pass behind and headed for home. - Sunday Tribune